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Literature finds life in subject of death

Published Jul 25, 2017


The inevitable and universal nature of death has made it a popular topic in children’s literature. Death has appeared in stories for centuries, but in young adult novels it has become much darker and more complex.

The controversy over Netflix’s adaptation of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, depicting the aftermath of teen suicide, shows that dealing with death in kids’ fiction can be fraught. Some defended the show’s graphic depiction of suicide; others argued it was gratuitous and dangerous.

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This raises the question of whether children’s literature and young adult fiction is still a safe place to discuss death. At the recent Emerging Writer’s Festival panel, Sex, Death and YA, young adult literature was celebrated for exploring such complex themes. There may be a trend toward darker themes in literature written for a young adult audience, but there is still room for hope.

Putting death on the page

Early works of children’s literature broaching the topic of death was usually to show how the protagonist copes in the aftermath of the death of a family member or friend. In many of these early works, depictions of death were softened for the reader, occurring outside the text.

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For instance, Mary’s parents in The Secret Garden (1911) die “off page”, a plot device to facilitate Mary’s arrival at Mistlethwaite Manor, where she discovers the secret garden. Charlotte’s Web (1952) softens the blow by making the characters non-human - in this case a spider.

Modern young adult novels are different. These texts not only depict young adult protagonists dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, but also the trauma of witnessing it. Such as in the case in The Outsiders (1967), when the protagonist Ponyboy, 14, is there when his best friend Johnny dies in hospital and when Dally, a member of Ponyboy’s gang, is killed by the police.

In recent years, young adult novels have featured their protagonists doing the killing. Characters in books such as Harry Potter (1997), The Hunger Games (2008) and Tomorrow When the War Began (1993), struggle not only with the inevitability of death and the pain of losing loved ones, but also with the guilt and ethical dilemma of having to kill to survive.

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Life after death

There has recently been a flood of novels that present death from the perspective of the protagonist.

These novels show characters who are terminally ill, rarely explored in young adult novels - the perspective of dying. In Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender (2005), Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007) and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) the protagonist portrays the fear and pain of dying, the challenge of accepting one’s own mortality and the guilt of leaving behind loved ones to cope.

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Other recent novels come from the perspective of someone who is already dead. They speak from beyond the grave, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall (2010) and, although technically not a young adult novel, in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which has been widely read by young people.

In the beginning of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why the protagonist, Hannah Baker, has taken her own life. In the novel, Hannah’s story and the reasons for her actions are disclosed through a series of tapes, 13 in total, all recorded before her death.

The Netflix series also demonstrates the shift of how death is portrayed to an adolescent audience. Asher’s novel leaves the method of Hannah’s suicide largely undisclosed, but the series, released 10 years after the book, portrays the suicide in excruciating detail.

Talking about death

Many children’s picture books, such as The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and Harry & Hopper written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, talk about death to help parents discuss the concept with young children, possibly for the first time.

When talking to kids about loss and grief the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel recommends the use of “storybooks” to explain death. “Speak with children honestly and directly about death and grief.”

Why is the honest and direct depiction of death in young adult novels often so controversial? Perhaps it is the desire to shelter young readers from topics such as war, terrorism, and human mortality - but young adults read about it in the news and on social media, and they experience it.

Perhaps it is because depicting death is seen to be void of hope. But possibly the idea of hope has also shifted, away from a fairytale notion of happily ever after and towards a reality that acknowledges the existence of darkness and light.

There is little research on the possible benefits of discussing death with young people. For those yet to be affected by the death of a loved one, reading about it from the perspective of another young adult can offer a way of building resilience. For those readers who have experienced the death of a family member or friend, being able to read about the experiences of others can offer consolation.

Erin Farrow, PhD Candidate and Academic Sessional, Victoria University. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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